In Praise of the New Prime Minister: Serzh Sargsyan’s Achievements

Nerses Kopalyan
If we equate stability with security, and security with longevity, then clearly we abide by the laws of continuity, hence providing the conceptual basis for the continuation of Serzh Sargsyan as the country’s leading political figure. We can better understand this through a more nuanced framework. Wisdom is a virtue possible only through experience; experience is a condition predicated on competence and competence is a quality innate to a refined politician. That Serzh Sargsyan is a refined politician is beyond debate. That Serzh Sargsyan is competent is a foregone conclusion. That Serzh Sargsyan is extraordinarily experienced cannot merit disagreement. And that Serzh Sargsyan, a consummate student of strategy, exudes wisdom, is only evident by merely observing his accomplishments. A selfless public servant who has devoted his life to the advancement and betterment of the Armenian nation, Serzh Sargsyan assumed the Presidency in 2008, amid turmoil and uncertainty, only to steer the nation toward development, growth, and security.
During President Sargsyan’s tenure, Armenia underwent extraordinary development in three important spheres. First, militarily, the armed forces of the Republic not only transitioned from a traditional military to a more mobile modern fighting force, but also attained some of the most advanced weaponry for the field of battle. Collectively, Armenia has become the most powerful military force in the Caucasus, whether in fighting spirit, quality of soldiers, strategic advantage, or military leaderships. Second, economically, Armenia’s economy diversified exponentially under President Sargsyan’s tenure, as Armenia transitioned into a service sector economy under the three pillars of banking, tourism, and technology. Coupled with the impressive foreign investments into Armenia’s economy, the unequivocal success of the Sargsyan Administration cannot merit criticism. And thirdly, the extraordinary advancement in culture; that is, the immersion of the Armenian homeland with its vast Diaspora, with President Sargsyan as the architect of this bridge that binds the Armenian culture the world throughout. Forthwith, when considering the prolific achievements of President Sargsyan, and his oeuvre of refinement, competence, experience, and wisdom, there remains no debate that he is the natural and most qualified choice to continue steering our nation toward progress as its Prime Minister.
Why does this sound like the commentary of a prolific sycophant? Oh, I was merely imitating Eduard Sharmazanov, Armen Ashotyan, Taron Margaryan, Davit Harutunyan, Ara Babloyan, to say the least, and the whole cadre of Republican (and Dashnak) court jesters that shamelessly worship at the altar of an empty throne. But wait, why is the throne empty? Well, that is because the esteemed Prime Minister does not have the courage to sit on it: so he is simply hiding behind it. To deny his endeavor of clinging to a throne, Sargsyan orchestrated an elaborate facade of institutional changes, to only deny that which he ended up doing: clinging to power and usurping the spirit of the Republic’s Constitution. This has become the incoherence of our current political system, a structural transition from a semi-presidential republic to a parliamentarian democracy; that is, an artificial transition that has placed Armenia in a limbo, in a state of defeatist apprehension, a shallow and embarrassing political system that suffocates from self-righteousness and self-congratulation. This is, quite simply, farcical. 

Addressing Sargsyan’s Achievements
As the title of this article denotes, it is incumbent to address the various achievements of Serzh Sargsyan. These achievements will be noted in four areas: the constitutional referendum, military reforms, foreign policy, and the economy.
The general consensus maintained that the Constitutional structure of Armenia endowed far too much power upon the office of the president, and as such, to allow for a healthy and systemic dispersion of power, a parliamentary system was the most cogent alternative. Thus, under the guise of structural democratization, Sargsyan orchestrated the 2015 constitutional referendum, where which the political and governing system of the country would adopt a parliamentary structure. Innate to this discourse was the concern that presidential powers in Armenia were conducive to dictatorial tendencies, and as such, the transition to a parliamentary system would offset this concern. This narrative was embraced by Armenia’s European partners as well as much of the Western world; that is, it was embraced in theory. Sargsyan utilized this narrative for two main reasons. First, he was not able to satisfactorily find a successor, and as such, he was not willing to risk the future trajectories of political power in the hands of someone he cannot control, or at the minimum, leverage. Second, contingent on this first assessment, the success of the referendum and the transition to a parliamentary system would deliver the corridors of power unto the Republican Party, which will give Sargsyan the flexibility of either playing the puppet master, or even assuming the Prime Ministership himself. This perceived, long-term strategic maneuver would have been deemed impressive and clever if not for one simple reason: most observers and much of the opposition called Sargsyan out ahead of time and exposed his so-called “tactical cleverness.” Forthwith, one of Sargsyan’s most impressive achievements has been his shameless abuse of authority, along with the realization that he is not the clever or strategic chess-player that he fancies himself to be. When your political endgame has already been predicted by your opponents, that makes you neither strategic nor clever: it simply makes you a glorified simpleton.
If Sargsyan is extolled for anything by his admirers, his security and military credentials remain the epitome. Contextually, we may address two obvious facts. First, Sargsyan has neither military training, nor does he have the acumen of a general or of a military tactician. Second, while Sargsyan excels at administrative capabilities (specifically noting his functions as Robert Kocharyan’s underling during the Artsakh War), this in no way legitimates his claims of being a military man. Simply put, Sargsyan is a wannabe siloviki, a bureaucratic hack who excels at abusing administrative resources to advance his political self-interest. Sargsyan has no bonafides as either a military leader or a competent operative in the realm of intelligence or espionage. Consequently, he is neither general nor spymaster: he is a bureaucratic operative who rose through the corridors of power fancying himself a political animal. This is why Sargsyan remains utterly uncomfortable with institutional reforms or broad-ranging policy alterations: he is a creature of the status quo, and only budges in the face of extreme risk aversion. This is most obviously attested when observing military reforms in the armed forces; that is, the complete absence of cogent reform until the Four Day War in 2016. Thus, only in the face of crises, where obvious and embarrassing shortcomings were revealed, did the Sargsyan Administration take steps at military reforms: it basically took 8 years, a multi-pronged invasion by the enemy, and a large loss of life for Sargsyan to finally realize the need for reforms. Thus, if we are going to qualify Sargsyan’s military achievements, they rest on two factors: 1) his inability to reform the military, especially elements of corruption, that proved to have a detrimental effect upon our national security; and 2) for being the first leader since independence who happened to lose territory to the enemy, regardless of the perceived relevance of this loss.
One of the most baffling cases of governing incompetence has revolved around the making and administering of Armenia’s foreign policy. It is baffling for two important reasons. First, considering the impressive intellectual manpower that Armenia produces, there happens to be a complete lack of braintrust in Armenian foreign policy-making. With the exception of a rising cadre of American and British-educated young diplomats, who, of course, are not really taken into consideration during policy formulation, Armenia’s foreign policy establishment is comprised of Soviet-educated halfwits and pseudo-intellectuals. Unable to orchestrate strategic initiative, resource-utilization, or even a decent grand strategy, Armenia’s foreign policy has been reduced to two precepts: conformist or reactionary. This, in turn, is complemented by sheer intellectual laziness: in parts of the world where Armenians display a healthy Diaspora, much foreign policy work is farmed out to Diasporan lobbying organizations, with the Armenian embassy, in an ad-hoc and at times disjunctive fashion, coordinating policy that lacks cogency or operationalization. But, what can our expectations be, when Sargsyan, for example, appoints someone like Edward Nalbandyan, a connoisseur of incompetence, as foreign minister. Or, for that matter, someone like Shavarsh Kocharyan, while a genuinely good person, but a policy ignoramus, as deputy foreign minister. Competent, energetic, highly-intelligent young diplomats are either sent out as ambassadors to relatively small, irrelevant countries, or shackled to bureaucratic responsibilities that suffocate their skills. The second baffling aspect of Armenian foreign policy is the complete lack of coherent policy principles. While suffering from endless flaws, at least Kocharyan’s foreign ministry under Vartan Oskanian had a cogent grand strategy under the “complementarity” policy, which provided for some degree of actionable initiative. For the last 10 years under Sargsyan, Armenia has not had a cogent foreign policy principle. Some have suggested it’s a “multi-vector” foreign policy, only to realize this is the plagiarizing of Russia’s post-Cold War policy. Some have suggested “neo-complementarity,” which, in essence, is tautological and contradictory. Lacking the sufficient braintrust to formulate effective foreign policy, the Sargsyan Administration’s relies on two precepts: conformism in its relations with Russia, and reactionary in its relations with the rest of the world. Simply put, the Sargsyan Administration has lacked a proactive foreign policy principle, relying on status-quo preservation, stagnation, and only in the face of crises, engaging in reactive or reciprocal measures. In comparison, while Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is collectively moronic, amateur, and at times asinine, it is at least proactive, as it has orchestrated a grand strategy to take the offensive against the Armenians, and as such, place us in a defensive posture. Sure, Azerbaijan miserably failed, especially through its Caviar Diplomacy, but at least this was proactive, well-organized, and at times, efficient. Compared to the mental-midgets of Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry, Armenian policy should not only be taking the initiative, but should robustly be maneuvering Azerbaijan into a highly defensive, immobile posture. My underlying argument here is that Armenia has been blessed, in the foreign policy realm, with an inept adversary; yet instead of profoundly dominating them, we are allowing them to be on par with us. This remains a singular achievement of the Sargsyan Administration.      
If overt underperformance in foreign policy is any indicator of the Sargsyan Administration’s ineptitude, this underachievement becomes even more staggering when gauging the terrible waste of potential and resources in dealing with the country’s economy. As noted earlier, pundits that support Sargsyan praise the growth in Armenia’s banking, tourism, and IT sectors as indicators of healthy and continuous economic growth. This discourse, of course, from the lens of any decent economist, borders the laughable: such arguments purposefully fail to acknowledge the country’s economic mismanagement, systemic corruption, and absence of sustainable growth. To display surprise at this would be an overreaction, considering the fact that Sargsyan has absolutely no understanding or grasp of economics, and considering his selection of Prime Ministers (whose main responsibility, formally and informally, is dealing with the economy) or Finance Ministers, we are simply left with a group of economic buffoons (although I’m willing to hold off judgement on Karen Karapetyan at this point). By simply pointing to macro-economic growth and structural reforms (if we may call it that), the government has displayed inflated numbers as indicative of healthy GDP growth since the global economic recession. But out of respect for decent, economic knowledge, can we at least pose the following questions: What is the state of our gross national income per capita? What are the indicators for export competitiveness? Can we, for once, receive some honest numbers on unemployment? And can the government explain why this macro-economic growth has actually had a negative effect on the widening disparities in wealth and income?
The prevailing narrative during Sargsyan’s first tenure was that Armenia was going to be the financial hub of the Caucasus under Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisyan’s tutelage of the banking sector, where which Armenia’s business-friendly and robust banking sector would establish Armenia as the regional financial center. The outcome, of course, was quite the opposite: between absurd lack of capital, obscene lending rates, and outdated regulations, Sargsyan’s presumed financial hub became something else…the money-laundering hub of the Caucasuses! Only stringent warnings from Europe, followed by America’s Treasury Department, did Armenia get its act together; but alas, nothing came of Sargsyan’s grand visions.
Considering how banking failed to transition the country into the service sector, the next modality of argument praised the increased and growing tourism in the country. While tourism, indeed, has consistently and methodically grown in Armenia, can we at least pose one honest question: until only few years ago, what government policies, economic incentives, infrastructure development, or other such initiatives were undertaken to improve the country’s tourism industry? The very heart of Armenia’s tourism industry is hinged on its Diaspora; not on any government policy or economic plan. Only recently have we seen concerted government policies and programs targeting tourists from the Middle East, East Asia, and the post-Soviet Space; but even then, the great bulk of the tourist industry, again, is heavily hinged on the Armenian Diaspora. Collectively, the government’s indifference and inaction cannot be concealing by pointing to statistics and numbers as demonstrations of the growth of Armenia’s tourism industry: one simply cannot take credit for something that one has done almost nothing towards.
Similar to the robust tourism industry, it boggles the mind that supporters of the government point to the healthy growth of the Armenian IT sector, as if this was somehow funded, organized, and developed by the government. Fundamentally relying on the investments of patriotic Diasporans, Armenia’s IT sector growth is a byproduct of devout and wealthy Diasporan actors who invested in educational centers, knowledge-transmission, importing of experts, and more importantly, creating a culture where Armenia's human capital can shine. And shine it has. But not because of anything that the Sargsyan Administration has done. Their minimalist contributions, in opportunistic fashion, upon which they have sought to syphon off credit from the tremendous work done by the actual contributors to the country’s IT sector is quite insulting. Even the current tax-exemptions that the government has offered to IT startups reeks of nonsensical opportunism: the government won’t invest in your growth, but at least it won’t squeeze you for the money that you yet don’t have!

The Logic of Strategic Incoherence
The rational justification for selecting Sargsyan as PM, and hence affirming the widely-held suspicion that this endeavor was a power grab, reeks of strategic incoherence. Why did Sargsyan promise not to accept the post of PM if he had no intentions of keeping his word? Or, can we perhaps give him the benefit of the doubt, as some of his supporters suggest, that he had every intention of not seeking the PM post, but since a qualified, acceptable candidate was not found, then Sargsyan remained the only tenable choice? If we accept the first argument, then we have no choice but to concede that this entire endeavor was a concerted effort to mislead the Armenian people through a prolonged power grab. If, on the other hand, we give Sargsyan the benefit of the doubt and lean toward the second argument, we still face a set of irreconcilable problems. I will deconstruct this argument on their own terms through a single example: Karen Karapetyan. On what basis can it be presumed that Karen Karapetyan, for example, is not an acceptable candidate for the position of PM? Is Karapetyan experienced? Of course; while his tenure has been inflated and selectively hyped, he is, however, quite functional and has displayed cogent organizational and management skills in running the government. Is he a refined politician? Karapetyan is far more elegant, appealing, and articulate than Sargsyan. Is Karapetyan competent? Clearly there is an unquestionable consensus among the RPA of Karapetyan’s excessive competence and perceived accomplishments. Well, if Karaptyan is experienced, competent, refined, and, based on his performance, fairly wise in the political field, on what basis was Karapetyan excluded? The only logical argument, at this stage, that Sargsyan’s supporters cling to is security: Karapetyan lacks experience in military affairs. This argument, of course, smacks of willful political ignorance. Namely, if military expertise is a prerequisite for political leadership, than none of the leaders of most of the developed world qualify to lead their powerful countries. Contextually, then, Karapetyan may actually be a more cogent candidate than Sargsyan, especially considering the fact that while Sargsyan is immensely unpopular in the country, Karapetyan, however, whether due to his charisma or panache, is actually quite liked by the public. Forthwith, whichever lens we analyze the discourse, all arguments fail to justify, on any rational basis, the selection of Sargsyan as PM; with the exception, of course, that this was a long-planned power grab. But then, we all knew that…so perhaps we can be excused for our collective cynicism!
This unapologetic cynicism has given birth to a well-crafted culture of scapegoating, where Sargsyan is insulated from any problems and complexities that arise, thus laying the blame on subordinate ministers. The inherent dishonesty of this approach, however, is obvious to all: he was the one that in the first place appointed such ministers. Within this context, Sargsyan only acts in the face of crisis, which then require some form of reform or change, thus making his approach reactive and stagnant, as opposed to proactive and functional. As such, when a crisis does present itself, this unapologetic cynicism of scapegoating creeps up: even though Sargsyan didn't do anything for all the years that led to the crisis, it is still not his fault, but rather, those of his ministers. Two simple examples are cases in point.
In the midst of the economic recession that engulfed the global markets, coupled with the heavy sanctions enacted against Russia by the West, thus indirectly affected Armenia's economy, Sargsyan appointed Hovik Abrahamyan as PM, upon relieving Tigran Sarkisyan from the same post. At this stage, one immediately poses the most obvious question: on what basis did any of us think that Abrahamyan will be able to, at any level, produce positive outcomes? How can Sargsyan appoint someone like Abrahamyan, renowned for not only being corrupt and incompetent, but, in essence, a disgusting human being, as Prime Minister of the country? Yet, when the economy neared the brink of collapse, coupled with the turmoil created by the Sasna Tserer phenomenon, there was very little blame on Sargsyan. Who was responsible for the dire economic conditions of the country? That would be the Prime Minister, Mr. Hovik Abrahamyan, the perfect scapegoat. The fact that Sargsyan appointed such an incompetent and problematic individual to such an important position escapes attention: all blame is placed on the scapegoat, and to appear as a reform-minded, elder statesman, Sargsyan immediately moved to replace him with a new PM. This modality of negating responsibility by scapegoating is neither clever nor strategic: it is purely dysfunctional.
This modality of scapegoating in the face of crisis was also evident in the consequences following the Four Day War in 2016. Lacking a developed military policy or doctrine since 2007, the Defense Ministry was operating in an outdated structure, led by a core of high-level officers whose level of military education and penchant for corrupt practices remained incommensurate with a modernizing young army and an excellent young officer corps. That Sargsyan sat on these developments for nearly a decade, only needing a full-blown Azeri assault to realize these complications is again indicative of his achievement as an inactive cynic; because, after all, the blame is going to be piled on someone else. And this is precisely what happened. The consequences for the shortcomings within the military in the April War were scapegoated upon Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian (and few other generals who for years had immense reputations for corruption). While Ohanian deserved his fair share of criticism, we cannot deny that he was perhaps one of the more competent Defense Ministers the Republic had for some time, and to scapegoat him for the plethora of failures that were culminations of forces beyond the Defense Minister’s scope remains purely dishonorable. This methodology of tactical scapegoating in the face of crisis of which the roots remain squarely at the failures of Sargsyan's policies remains a prolific exercise in cynicism. Through this structured narrative, Sargsyan succeeds at deflecting blame upon himself, thus insulating his political capital, while through scapegoating ministers, he postures himself as a reformer. Thus, he replaced the incompetent Hovik Abrahamyan with the competent Karen Karapetyan; he replaced the inept Seyran Ohanian with the young, energetic, reform-minded Vigen Sarkissian.

Without an Endgame
The argument being made here is not purely on political grounds: we must also consider the social psychology of the Armenian people. No to over-engage in ontological abstractions, it should be noted that the concept of hope has played a very important role in allowing Armenian citizens to cope with their political world ever since independence. Within this context, how do we confront the following question: What is worse than being hopeless? The dire answer: Having false hope! And this is precisely how Sargsyan operated when attempting to convince both the opposition, and Western pundits, of what the future trajectories of Armenia’s politics will be. He categorically stated that he would not assume/accept the position of PM once his term was up. As such, he gave a wide array of hope to all observers, domestic and in Diaspora, that a healthy power transition will take place within the parliamentary structure. What Sargsyan actually did, however, was orchestrate a narrative that was fundamentally misleading, and even worse, he gave everyone false hope! Needless to say, this comes to negate every form of argument or hope that Sargsyan, or his supporters, may attempt to suggest on the country’s future. By virtue of violating his own promise, and thus negating any reason to believe in his words, no individual, with speck of intellectual decency, will have reason to believe what Sargsyan, or the RPA, say about the country’s future leadership. In this context, Sargsyan violated his social contract with the Armenian people by violating his own promise. For a self-proclaimed chess connoisseur, this clearly cannot be his endgame; but, as has become evident, Sargsyan himself does not known what the endgame is. Power, for the sake of power, is not an endgame: it is a horrific precedent. And rest assured, Sargsyan himself is concerned with this precedent.
The greatest danger, therefore, and the most vital complexity of Sargsyan becoming PM is that it not only reinforces, but also justifies the de-moralization of the Armenian citizen. The citizen, aside from its already-embedded distrust of the political system, now views the future in conspiratorial and defeatist terms. Simply put, we are seeing the de-citizenization of Armenian society. This is truly a saddening development: our political culture has been reduced to farce. The lamentations of Armenian society have become the lamentations of the irrelevant, as an ethos of apathy and helplessness defines our socio-political reality. What this artificial transition has done is not simply extended Sargsyan’s tenure, or the continued dominance of the RPA, or the re-entrenchment of the oligarchic interests; more disturbingly, it has proceeded, perhaps unwillingly, but nonetheless, in breaking the political spirit of the Armenian people. The Armenian citizen is being reduced to a political zombie, a broken, soulless creature that wonders a landscape of hostile indifference.

"EVN Report," April 17, 2018 (https://www.evnreport.com/politics/in-praise-of-the-new-prime-minister-serzh-sargsyan-s-achievements)

No comments:

Post a Comment